The Elements of Design Thinking (version 1.0)

What are the fundamental concepts and theories behind “design thinking”?

I have been thinking about this question a lot lately as I try to understand some of the underpinnings and history of design thinking. This got me thinking about the “fundamentals”, those core constructs at the heart of this process.

So, my background is in biological sciences and I have getting back to my biology basics through a bit reading I’ve been doing on the neuroscience of pleasure and addictions (The book I finished is The Compass of Pleasure by David Linden…an excellent read by the way!). This book talks about neurological pathways, diving into the fine details of neurotransmitter release, dendrites, dopamine channels, and the stimulation of nerves leading to the emotional, mental and physical responses of the brain and body. This reminded me of the fundamental biochemical pathways and components that comprise the human body and are essential to our livelihood.

When I think about the fundamentals of design thinking, I think about a variety of ‘messy’ concepts that have come together, informed by a multiplicity of disciplines and ways of thinking, feeling, and doing. That said, it’s hard to pinpoint the underlying constructs of design thinking…rather I see diverse collections of design thinking concepts that have manifested themselves into the forms of design thinking that I see and read about. In this sense, it seems that there are essential building blocks of design thinking that are expressed in various permutations and combinations, depending on the designer and context in which it is being practiced.

I was inspired by the periodic table of the elements in thinking about this. The periodic table has always been a point of fascination and brilliance to me. The fact that science has identified essential elements that comprise all human life and all matter is pretty cool. There is a beautiful order to the elements that dictates their very composition, behaviours, and relationships. The elements themselves are comprised of subatomic particles (protons and neutrons for instance) and there are still a lot of unknowns and things to discover as we dig even further (quirks, quarks, etc.). Amazingly, when grouped into periods (rows), families (columns), and blocks there are patterns of similarity, synergy, and difference that emerge.

The above image is an attempt (a very crude and incomplete attempt that is) to highlight some major concepts that have come up in my design, design thinking, and health promotion learnings that I felt were elemental to “design thinking”. Please note that I intentionally tried to avoid the inclusion of design methods and wanted to include only major themes rather than list too many sub-categories of potential elements (e.g., senses like “touching”, “smelling”, etc. were not listed individually but assumed to fall under the umbrella term “sensing”).

These elements have been organized into families and periods (very loosely) — this was sort of my own challenge to see if I could come up with some clear connections between these concepts across the table’s horizontal and vertical axes. As I expected, this was really really difficult and I don’t think I’ve managed to do it. What I’ve come up with is a 1.0 version of this table and I welcome feedback, new ideas, and alternative language, words, concepts, and groupings. After all, this is the start of an experiment…like a sketch on the back of a napkin that can be either a really great idea or a complete flop. Also, you’ll also notice gaps in the table where some concepts may have been missed or unaccounted for. Certainly this table is not as orderly (or ‘natural’) as Mendeleev’s!

Perhaps the use of a table is a bit too mechanistic, scientific, or generally just not amenable to design thinking? I will say that I think there is value in thinking about the design thinking elements that are core to all design thinking practice (e.g., I have proposed these elements in red) and how these can be blended together with various combinations of other elements to create a unique design thinking space for particular contexts, problems, and people. I also appreciate that these concepts/words can be adapted to fit the language and definitions of any designer and that they are visible in one space so they are made more explicit and clear. Moreover, the combinations of elements can potentially be weaved into various theories (e.g., of learning, education, behaviour change, and design) so that we can make better sense of all this”design thinking” stuff.


UPDATE: My follow up post, Elements of Design Thinking “trading cards”, has a series of cards with the elements on them for you to print off and cut out if you’re interested in playing around with these concepts even further! Thanks.


For InDesign-ers: I am having trouble applying colours to shapes/lines outside of the automatic swatches offered in the main palet (notice that I used the standard colours available in the palet for the image above). Is there a more extensive colour selection I can choose from? This has been an ongoing problem for me! Oy.

19 thoughts on “The Elements of Design Thinking (version 1.0)

  1. For fun: You can make a drinking game out of the number of times I have said the word “thinking” in this post!

  2. Nice job!

    Although I am not sure what sort of usage you can put this into except of course the aesthetic sense of accomplishment!

    Mendeleev’s original table was there indicating interrelationships and info about each element as well as arranging them according to their properties.

    Perhaps if further elaborated, it could become more useful.

    It serves as a good overall summary of all components though!!

    1. Thanks! As I mentioned, this is pretty crude and requires much more work and elaboration. Determining the finer relationships between the elements and their properties/descriptors has been quite a tricky challenge but as this piece progresses and others add/modify it, I agree, it can become much more helpful to the field and non/design-thinkers alike. Feedback is always welcome!

  3. Andrea, This is a marvellous and indeed an elegant piece of work. As a first crack, this concept exceeds work of experienced designers developed over years in terms of its application and metaphorical integrity.

    But this isn’t about praise, rather some suggestions. One process that I believe is necessary is Co: Comtemplation. By this I am referring to the form of contemplative inquiry that includes meditation in various forms, but also such practices as bearing witness, deep listening and some forms of reflective activism. An interesting, yet perhaps not wholly applicable model of such practice is available here:

    At the design thinking unconference ( last week there was much discussion on the role of listening and becoming more in touch with those who are expected to use or benefit from our designs.

    Contemplative inquiry is a means of achieving some of that by focusing on what is in front of us and holding it in our thoughts, integrating it with our feelings, and sensing what is around it. Indeed, it encompasses the Humanize and Process elements you’ve so beautifully expressed in your model. However, without such a sense of holding – this contemplative practice – I fear that there may be an arm-chair sensibilty to design that rests on good intentions and social expectations (“well OF COURSE we need to be empathic…”) than a true sense of union with others and the context in which we design.

    This is but one suggestion to a model that is positively moving in its coherence.

    Thank you for this contribution.

    1. Thanks Cameron. I think you bring up a great point about Contemplation as it refers to something that is not quite yet covered in the Table and worth including in the 1.1 version. In the meantime, I’ve updated the DT trading cards so that this new element can be added to the mix and played around with: (Check the third page)

      Given that there were lots of elements starting with a “C”, “Co” was already taken by “Coherence”. So for now I’ve added Contemplation as “Cn”, which I think fits nicely. Thanks again for this contribution!

  4. As a ‘resting’ [freelance] knowledge broker, with recent experience of design thinking and concepts of complexity in service design and delivery: co-production might be another element? I have an arts and social science background, but like the elegance of this draft, and am sure it has value as a way of stimulating new thinking in the field. Lovely.

    1. Hi Roger, Thanks so much for your kind note! You’ve got a really interesting background and I appreciate the feedback you have to offer. Ah, I think co-production could be an interesting addition to the Table and after looking at it again, I’m not sure there’s a concept there that really speaks to some level of cooperation or collaboration as your term would suggest! This is great 🙂

  5. Hi Andrea,

    I like you project. A great way of showing an inventory of concepts that are being used (though not necessarily all of them, by everyone) in this broad, sometimes quite abstract field. I agree with the suggestions of Cameron and Roger (contemplation and co-creation) and have little to add but the concepts of “association” “sketching” “rephrasing” and “translation”,but those might be too particular for my own design-thinking practice. I am, being a relatively new to the field of design thinking (reading up quickly) but being seasoned in illustration, design, strategy and coaching, a firm believer in making concepts, processes, values and relations as visible and tangible as possible. That’s why I like your use of metaphor (periodic table) and your wish to organize these abstract concepts visually. A problem I have with your metaphor is that it does not show the reaction the elements have when combined – which is where the fun is in both chmistry and practicing design thinking.
    Anyway, It seems everybody in this field focusing so hard on the theory and the process that your Indesign question is still unanswered:
    in Indesign 5 Go to: WINDOW>COLOUR>COLOUR. A dialog will appear. Choose the colour system you want to use by clicking on the grey lines in the upper right corner of the dialog (RGB for web, CMYK for print). I all is well you should now see sliders that you can adjust to compose the colour you want. You can save these colours by dragging them into the swatches dialog you mentioned and used already (WINDOWS>COLOURS>SWATCHES).
    Hope that helps!
    Good luck and please post version 2.0 when it’s ready!

    1. Thank you so much for the comment!
      I think your critique of the table is really helpful and I agree, it’s missing the chemistry that could emerge from various combinations of the elements of design thinking! This has been interesting for me to think about and I have been curiously wondering what combinations of elements make up a design thinking “reaction”. Perhaps there are elements that must be essential for the reaction to be called design thinking?
      I also very much appreciate your suggested concepts and will consider them into version 2.0 🙂 I like the choice of words you have suggested and am particularly intrigued by “association” and “rephrasing”. These concepts highlight connections and vantage points — these are key to design thinking.
      Finally, thanks for the InDesign tips! As a novice InDesign user, this is extremely helpful.

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